The first American combat troops, 3,500 Marines from the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade based in Okinawa, Japan, arrived in South Vietnam in March 1965 to protect a U.S. air base in Da Nang. It was a start of a long and costly fight that saw more than 58,000 U.S. servicemembers killed and another 150,000 wounded over the next 10 years.

 It was the first war in which the United States ultimately failed to meet its objectives, and also the first time America failed to welcome its veterans back home as heroes.

This year, the country commemorates the 50th anniversary of the official end of the Vietnam War. It’s estimated that of the 3 million American men and women who actually served in Vietnam, less than 1 million are still alive today.

Glen Sparrow served during the Vietnam War as a crewmember on the USS Goldsborough (DDG-20) from 1964-1965.

In an effort to preserve the histories of Vietnam veterans, the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration office in Washington D.C. has spent the last several years conducting oral interviews around the country.

“One of the best ways to preserve their legacy is to record their experiences first hand,” said Mark Franklin, chief of the history and legacy branch of the commemoration office. “The viewer or listener will better appreciate the veterans’ service and sacrifice, and ensure their legacy endures for future generations.”

Mark and his commemoration team recently spent a week at the USS Midway Museum recording interviews with 20 museum volunteers who are also veterans of the Vietnam War.

“History is more properly retrieved if it includes the views, memories, explanations of those who experienced it, not just from the reports and writings of those who research, but did not experience, then relate the events,” said Glen Sparrow, a Midway docent with more than 6,000 volunteer hours who deployed to Vietnam on the guided-missile destroyer USS Goldsborough DDG-20 from 1964-1965 as the ship’s navigator.

“I think oral history helps round out the story of the past,” said Steve Cross, who deployed to Vietnam on the USS Frank Knox (DDR-742) in 1967 as the anti-submarine warfare officer and the naval gunfire officer. “A story, at times, can tell of an individual caught up in the forces of history. When veterans tell their story it helps future generations understand what changed and what stayed the same. Our veteran’s story is a portrait of who we are and what we remember.”

The commemoration office has interviewed hundreds of Vietnam veterans since the project began 10 years ago. Mark and his team are in the process of preparing them for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

“Written history is important for future generations, but, by its nature, unless it’s autobiographical, is distant and sanitized,” said Phil Eakin, the navigator on the USS Higbee (DD-806) in 1972 when it was bombed by a North Vietnamese MIG 17 while operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. “Oral history provides a record of somebody who was there. It is more personal and visceral. Oral history, even in transcribed form, is of more value to a researcher and more interesting to the casual consumer than a compiled record of events.”

“Oral history provides a record of somebody who was there. It is more personal and visceral. Oral history, even in transcribed form, is of more value to a researcher and more interesting to the casual consumer than a compiled record of events.”

The commemoration office was established in 2012 under the secretary of defense with the purpose of thanking and honoring Vietnam veterans and their families. Recording oral histories is just one of the programs aimed at commemorating the services and sacrifices of these veterans.

“Among the 845 interviews we have conducted since I began this project in 2013, the veterans that we interviewed on the USS Midway were some of the most articulate and insightful,” said Mark, whose Army career spanned 30 years. “The interviews were instructive, sometimes sad and difficult to hear, but in every case, genuine and authentic. It was an honor and a privilege to interview them.”

Steve Cross deployed to Vietnam on the USS Frank Knox (DDR-742) in 1967.

“The vast majority of our veterans are very proud of their service, regardless of how the public viewed the conflict,” said Mark, a retired U.S. Army colonel. “The most important lesson we can take from these oral histories is that we should never blame the warrior for the war.”

For Midway volunteers, the interviews were the opportunity to not only chronicle their own experiences during their time in Vietnam, but to add to the war’s overall narrative and better inform those who have never served in the uniform of the nation.

“Most people in this country have little or no experience with military service,” said Steve, who has logged more than 7,300 volunteer hours as a Midway docent. “A few photos of distressed veterans paint an unfair picture of the millions of Vietnam veterans who are quietly successful and major contributors in their community. Telling our stories helps refocus nonveterans on the overwhelming success of our military citizens.”

“While recollections, some 50-years removed from the actual events, are subject to memory loss or modification, they can also provide ground truth,” said Phil, one of Midway’s senior volunteer librarians who has dedicated more than 20,000 hours of his time to the museum. “That is why it is important to collect oral histories from veterans.”

Once the interviews are finalized for the Library of Congress, they will remain in perpetuity for current and future generations of historians, researchers and students of history.

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